When God made man, he didn’t make warriors. He didn’t make kings, priests, factory workers, doctors, nurses, or even policemen. There was no need. Instead, God made gardeners.
Our primary role as human beings is as worshipers of God, bearers of His Image (Gen. 1:27). Our original function within that role, where our worship manifested itself at its most fundamental intention, was in our care for the rest of Creation. To unpack this idea, we don’t start with man’s interaction with nature, but with God’s.
We first meet God as Creator, a role that manifests itself in very gardener-like behaviors. Whereas in other Ancient Near Eastern creation narratives we find gods who war in violent conflict against the existing chaotic elements, the biblical narrative describes something very different, instead of forcing the world to subject to His will, He enters into what seems more like a dialogue than a battle with Creation.
Genesis involves a God who enters into a dance with the elements of the world which participate willingly in the shaping of the world. There is an invitational nature to God’s commands, and Creation responds in joyful volition. This is highlighted by Genesis 1: 12. When God says, “let the earth sprout vegetation,” Scripture says that the ground itself brings forth vegetation. In the Hebrew, the word for earth is the subject of the verb, implying that the action of “bringing forth” is carried out by the agent, “the ground”. The earth is participating in God’s creative act.
To be sure, it is God who is Creator, and Creation is doing His bidding. But it is important to note that God is not forcing and coercing the elements into shape and order, as is the pattern in other A.N.E. creation stories. Instead, God, as Almighty Creator, speaks His commands, and the elements to respond in obedience to His voice without the need for force.
So, God works with Creation. The Creation Narrative is emphasizing that Creation is actively reacting to God’s invitations. In His shaping and forming, God works with Creation and brings forth–by His hand–life. From the dirt, from the water, and from the sky, He beckons life from nonexistence into the cosmos.
The account culminates in the creation of humanity. Here, we learn that we are part dirt. We are a part of Creation, not apart from it. We come from dirt, and we return to it. We need it for food and shelter. We rely on it for our existence. In Genesis, the earth is presented as a close relation of ours; we came from it. In our making, we see God actually get down in the dirt (much like a gardener) and form from the dust itself a man. To make human beings, God kneels down in the dust and dirties His anthropomorphic hands to form the perfect reflection of His Image (Gen. 2:7).
When God makes human beings in His own Image, He gives them the task of continuing His work of shaping and reshaping the earth. We see this first in God’s original creation mandate to subdue Creation and have dominion over it (Gen. 1:28). To some (like Matthew Hagee), this means a blatant disregard for creation; whatever you want, whenever you want. But in what way was humanity intended to have dominion over creation?
As a gardener subdues his garden, providing ripe conditions for the most life possible.
God gives the command to subdue the earth under dominion not without the clarification of how. In Gen. 2:15, God places man in a garden; we are led to believe that He is placed here to carry out the creation mandate. The two words used here to clarify this mandate are עָבַד (a.vad) and שָׁמַר (sha.mar). These words are typically rendered “work” and “keep,” but these words have deeper meaning than that. They carry the weight , respectively, of service and observance/protection. The first command humanity received from God was to serve and protect the earth.
עָבַד (a.vad) is used often to denote both working and serving another in a particular work (Gen. 31:6; Ex. 4:23, 5:18, etc.). What we see in Genesis, then, is a command to “work” the ground as a kind of service to it and to God. The second word, שָׁמַר (sha.mar), is often used in religious terms, such as “keeping Torah” (e.g. Ex. 13:10). It is also used to refer to the act of regarding the poor and caring for them, preventing their abuse (e.g. Ps. 16:1). This would lead us to read God’s intention for mankind in terms of this responsibility: to prevent abuse and misuse, carefully watching over and observing Creation on behalf of God.
This is the responsibility to do what God was already doing, participating with Him and with Creation to promote life. So, it shouldn’t surprise us that we are supposed to enjoy the same cooperation with Creation that God enjoyed. We were not meant to toil and struggle in our work; our work was meant to be a joyful, life-bearing dialogue between us and the rest of Creation. In our worship of God, we were supposed to work the garden, bearing the Image of the Great Gardener who enjoyed such harmony in His work. We did enjoy this for a while, but it ended, and man failed to serve and protect Creation. Adam allowed sin and death to enter the world- the world he was supposed to help flourish and abound with life. Instead of encouraging life, he allowed death. Instead of protecting and keeping the garden, he allowed it to experience the curse of sin.
One aspect of the Fall was that we no longer receive cooperation from the earth. In fact, we receive animosity. This new development, or de-development, was not just the loss of a luxury; it was the loss of a dialogue- of a friend. In response to our rejection of God, the ground has rejected us. The friendship broken, replaced by thorns and thistles. We now struggle and suffer in our attempt to care for Creation, which has become unyielding and stubborn to our attempts to care for it. It is ironic that we still bear God’s Image even in this: we are to care for a Creation that rebels against us, just as God cares for us in spite of our rebellion.
Still, while the harmonic cooperation between humanity and Creation ended, God didn’t rescind His command. Even though the ground rebels against us, we, as Image Bearers of God, are still called to love it and care for it, as He loves and cares for us. The Creation Mandate continues even though it has gotten harder and harder to carry out.
Of Course, this does not mean we worship the Creation in the stead of the Creator. Far from it. Our care for Creation is not worship of created things; it is the worship of the Creator. We serve God through our work, and we worship Him as we keep His Creation from harm and prevent it from being abused and misused. We sing praises to Him in our stewardship and raise dirt-covered hands in exaltation.
It is typical that one might argue here that environmental concern is simply polishing the brass on a sinking ship. Christ is coming back to save His church and to bring in a new heavens and a new earth, so why bother saving this world?
The answer is at least twofold: obedience and joy. We conserve this world and steward it well because God tells us to in His Word. As was stated above, while our mandate to serve and protect creation has become increasingly difficult, it has not gone away.
But obedience is not the only reason we serve and protect this world. We also participate in conservation out of joy. Broken and cursed as it is, the world is still good. It is still an amphitheater of God’s majesty, a tool in the Creator’s hands as He reveals Himself to His Creation. The trees, the rivers, the mountains, and everything else reveal the nature of our God (Rom. 1:20). The psalms are full of the creative imagery of nature, showing us God’s beauty revealed in what He has made. We can experience the beauty of God through our obedience as we serve and protect the ground we came from.
And Finally, when we work for creation, we work with God. According to the psalms, God actively cares for the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the forest animals, and all other creatures (Ps. 24, 27, 28, 104, 145, 147, etc.). In fact, God’s care for all His creatures is so embedded in His heart that it is used as part of the reason Jonah should have had compassion on Nineveh, because Nineveh was full of many cattle (Jonah 4:11). As we participate in our creation mandate, we partner with God in promoting life on the earth, in accordance with His original desire and design.
One day soon, the Good Gardener will return and restore our relationship with Him, with each other, and with all of Creation. As He is making us new selves out of the old, He is making all things new (Rev. 21:5). The whole creation is experiencing the pains of birthing the new creation that God is bringing about (Rom. 8:22). Until that day, we strive with each other to serve and protect our friend, the created order, even when it is utterly difficult.
Come, Lord Jesus, Come.